In the NFL, you hear analysts and coaches scream about the importance of special teams. Some folks feel that special teams are just as important as defense and offense. While special teams are an important facet of the game, they do not equal the need to stop other teams from scoring and to sustain scoring drives over the course of a game. Game can turn on a special teams play, but for the most part, being just average is not a bad thing.
If you look at Football Outsiders stats for special teams, you will see some teams at the top who are in the playoff hunt. Maybe special teams do matter. Of course, this is just week 12, and the season is still 4 weeks from being closed and final analysis can be done. If we look back on the last few years and see the number of top 10 rated special teams out of the number of playoff teams, then we can see if there is a correlation. Listed are the top ten units for special teams in the NFL and in bold are the playoff teams.
2004 Top Ten (1-10): Buffalo, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Cincy.
2003 Top Ten: Baltimore, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Houston, Oakland, Chicago, Miami, Pittsburgh, Detroit, NY Jets.
2002 Top Ten: New Orleans, NY Jets, Detroit, Philadelphia, New England, Atlanta, Houston, Tampa Bay, Miami, Cleveland.
2001 Top Ten: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Carolina, Chicago, Miami, New England, Tampa Bay, NY Jets, Denver, Detroit.
Now 42.5% of the teams that made the top ten for special teams made the playoffs. That is a pretty high percentage. It is odd that some of the very worst teams in the league are in the top 10 for special teams. It might be the focus of a particular coach or system. One could say that the Patriots special teams of 2001 won them the Super Bowl, and if you look at their statistics for that season, special teams gave them points & field posession their offense could not put up without. One could argue that the punt returning capabilities of Troy Brown got the Pats to the playoffs and a Super Bowl win.
Does special teams correlate more than the other pieces like offense and defense? As with the special teams, top ten units will be listed with the playoff teams in bold. If one were to say that success in special teams means that one will have success in wins/losses, one would expect roughly the same percentage of teams in the top ten for special teams to make the playoffs as with offense/defense.
2004 Top Ten: Buffalo, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Denver, New England, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Miami, Carolina.
2003 Top Ten: Baltimore, Tampa Bay, New England, Miami, Dallas, St. Louis, Buffalo, Denver, Green Bay, Tennessee.
2002 Top Ten: Tampa Bay, Miami, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Oakland, Carolina, Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, New England.
2001 Top Ten: Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Miami, San Diego, NY Jets, Washington, Chicago.
2004 Top Ten: Indianapolis, KC, Minnesota, New England, NY Jets, Philly, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Green Bay, Denver.
2003 Top Ten: KC, Indy, Seattle, Minnesota, Tennessee, Philly, San Fran, Green Bay, NY Jets, Cincy.
2002 Top Ten: KC, Oakland, San Fran, NY Jets, Atlanta, Denver, Tennessee, Jacksonville, NY Giants, New Orleans.
2001 Top Ten: St. Louis, San Fran, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Indy, KC, Jacksonville, Green Bay, Tennessee, Arizona.
The stats show that 52.5% of the teams that were in the top 10 on defense made the playoffs, and 60% of top ten offenses made the playoffs. Special teams had only 42.5% of the top ten teams make the playoffs. It is fair to say that teams that have top ten defenses/offenses are more likely to make the playoffs. If making the playoffs is the definition of success, then no, special teams are not as important as offense/defense. Because fewer than half of the top ten teams make the playoffs, which field 12 spots per conference, success and special teams are not correlated.